By Brian Rentschler
Short version: Unlikable characters, pretentious writing and misguided direction make this movie a total mess from start to finish.
I have a confession to make. It’s not easy, but I need to get this off my chest. Okay, here goes: Sometimes I miss the mid-80’s. There, I’ve said it. Seriously, most (not all) of the music in the mid-80’s was at least decent, if not exceptional. Gangsta rap was at least a few years away, and country music was only played on the country stations. And the movies… some real classics came out in the mid-80’s. Splash, The Goonies, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Back to the Future… the list goes on. So when I rented Body Double, I thought I was in for a good movie. After all, it was produced, directed and co-written by Brian DePalma. Aside from having an awesome first name (and spelled the right way), DePalma has been behind the camera on some of my favorite movies. If there is a better adaptation of a Stephen King horror movie than Carrie, I haven’t seen it. A long time ago, Kevin Costner used to star in good movies, and The Untouchables ranks high on that list. And who wouldn’t want to say hello to my little friend, Scarface? Okay, so maybe Scarface was a little over-the-top, but I enjoyed it. To me, it will always be a classic. So how did Body Double compare to those movies? Let’s put it this way: After watching it, I was reminded that DePalma has also been involved in a number of genuine stinkbombs. To that list, I (not so) proudly add Body Double.
The story is set in (where else?) Los Angeles. Jake Scully (played by Craig Wasson) is a struggling actor. Jake is also extremely claustrophobic; his entire body freezes up when he’s in a confined space. That causes all sorts of problems when Jake is cast as a vampire in a B-movie and can’t shoot his coffin scenes. After he messes up take after take, the director (played by Dennis Franz) sends him home and ends up casting a different actor in the role. To make matters worse, Jake arrives home only to find his girlfriend in bed with another man. Having job and woman troubles, Jake drowns his sorrows in booze and acting classes. Sadly, even the acting classes aren’t enough to snap Jake out of his downward spiral; his overwhelming fear is preventing him from achieving his true potential as an actor. But all is not lost; a mysterious fellow by the name of Sam Bouchard (played by Gregg Henry) befriends Jake and helps to pull him out of the proverbial gutter.
Jake needs a place to sleep, now that his relationship has gone the way of the dodo. As luck would have it, Sam needs someone to watch his place while he’s out of town. Things aren’t all rosy, though, because we quickly find out that Sam is a “peeping tom.” Sam has a female neighbor who has a peculiar habit of dancing suggestively in various states of undress at the same time every night, and he likes to enjoy the show through his telescope. Fortunately for Sam, Jake is also a pervert, so he enjoys the “peep show” with the same vigor as Sam. After Sam leaves town, Jake continues to enjoy the neighbor’s “peep show” to the point that he becomes obsessed with her. He even starts to stalk her in his own caring way, especially after he notices that an Indian man has been stalking her as well. A normal man would introduce himself to her, but not Jake. He’s a shy stalker; he follows her to the mall, where he’s nearly arrested for stalking (surprise!). From there, he follows her to the beach, where he finally gets up the courage to talk to her. He warns her that someone is following her, and she thinks Jake is talking about himself. (Hmmm… now why would she think that?) Before they can say too much, though, the Indian man appears and snatches her purse. Jake pursues the Indian, but he ultimately gets away. It’s at this point that we learn that the woman’s name is Gloria Revelle (played by Deborah Shelton). Faster than you can say “totally unrealistic,” Gloria and Jake exchange a long kiss worthy of a soap opera, and Gloria runs off.
Later that night, Jake is peering into his telescope, hoping to see more of Gloria in action, but instead — to his horror — he sees that the Indian man is inside Gloria’s house, and Gloria is home. Frantically, Jake calls Gloria and tries to warn her, but the Indian man is already attacking her. While Gloria is struggling, Jake runs over to her house as fast as he can, but he’s too late. The method in which Gloria is killed is presumably meant to be gruesome, but it’s so over-the-top that it’s rather silly and unintentionally funny. Needless to say, the Indian man escapes unnoticed, and the police initially suspect Jake of the crime, although he’s quickly cleared. It turns out that Gloria was married, and the police can’t find her husband. As if the movie isn’t weird enough already, it becomes downright bizarre at this point.
Jake is quite upset by Gloria’s death, so of course he deals with his grief by watching lots of late-night TV. He is dumbstruck when he sees a woman on TV dancing exactly the same way Gloria did every night, so of course he has to meet this woman. She turns out to be an adult film actress named Holly Body (played by Melanie Griffith), and before you can say “You must be kidding,” Jake is starring in an adult film with Holly. (I only wish I were making this up.) I was about ready to turn the movie off, because I really don’t care for that subject matter, but those scenes were mercifully short. In typical fashion for him, Jake lies through his teeth and tells Holly that he’s a movie producer, and that he has a role in mind for her in his next movie. It doesn’t take her long to realize that Jake’s a fraud, but by that time, Jake is starting to wonder if it was really Gloria he was seeing through the window every night. Is everything as it seems, or is something more sinister taking place?
All throughout the movie, it is obvious that Brian DePalma wants to be that generation’s Alfred Hitchcock. It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I doubt whether Hitchcock would be flattered by this movie. Many of the scenes feel like they’re ripped off from Hitchcock classics, especially Rear Window and Vertigo. While Hitchcock went for scary, DePalma goes for gory. While Hitchcock went for intriguing, DePalma goes for lurid. The movie tries to redeem itself during the finale, but it ultimately falls completely flat. I’m trying to think of a single thing this movie did right, and aside from a few genuinely suspenseful scenes, I really can’t think of anything. Most of the necessary elements to make a good movie are there, but they’re thrown together in such a disjointed and pretentious way that it’s far more frustrating than entertaining.
So is this movie worth seeing? Quite honestly, I can’t think of anyone for whom the answer is yes. Not one single character in the movie is likable; all of them are either morons, jerks or both. The storyline revolves around an actor’s struggle to succeed in the business, as well as the adult film industry. I couldn’t care less about either subject, so how was I supposed to enjoy the movie? The lead character, Jake, is a pervert, a creep and a moron. How was I supposed to enjoy the movie if I wasn’t even rooting for the lead character to succeed? I was actually hoping it would be Jake who met a gruesomely violent end instead of Gloria. If you’re a big fan of DePalma, do yourself a big favor and rent one of his better movies like Carrie, The Untouchables or even Scarface. But if you insist on seeing Body Double because, like its lead character, your curiosity gets the better of you and you just have to watch, set your expectations appropriately low and try to resist the urge to bang your head into a wall during the movie. Consider yourself warned.